ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MARCH 11, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Because God Loves the World
Numbers 21: 4 – 9; Ephesians 2: 1 – 10; John 3: 14 – 21

Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, which means we’re now more than half-way through our 40-day journey toward Easter. Traditionally, this Sunday has been called Rose Sunday. Centuries ago, on this day, Church Leaders would send roses and rose petals to people of influence to encourage the faithful by providing a moment of beauty and a symbol of love in an otherwise somber stretch of days. This mediaeval practice reminds us that, although faith is a serious quest which forms our lives and has eternal consequences, even in this most solemn Church season when we ponder the sin which led to Christ’s suffering and death, there is hope and joy because God loves us.

Perhaps the most famous verse in the New Testament is John 3:16. It is one of the few passages most Christians know by rote. John 3: 16 has appeared on placards at sports events, front yard signs, in the bottom of paper cups at fast-food restaurants and even in the eye black of a football player named Tim Tebow. In 2009, when Tebow was a quarterback for Florida U, he wrote the citation under his eyes for a televised game. The bad news is: 93 million people didn’t know what John 3:16 was and had to Google it. Fast forward, 3 years to the day later, when Tebow’s NFL team, the Broncos, beat out the Steelers to go on to the playoffs. When they came off the field, the VP of Public Relations for the Broncos reminded Tebow of the date and informed him that during the game that just finished, Tebow threw for 316 yards, his yards per completion were 31.6, his yards per rush were 3.16, the time of possession was 31.06 and the Nielson ratings for the night we’re 31.6. Co-incidence? I think not! The good news is: 93 million people googled a verse of scripture which Martin Luther called, “the gospel in miniature”. John 3:16 describes the essence of the Christian faith: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” At the heart of all we believe is this fact: God loves the world! That means, as Philip Yancey so eloquently put it, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” God’s love is not based on our character, but on God’s character. God loves the world. Period.

The fact that God loves us is the most wonderful message we can ever hear. If God loves us what can we possibly fear? As Paul says, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31 NRSV). “With God on our side like this, how can we lose?” (Romans 8:31 The Message). God’s love gives us safety, freedom and the fullness of life. Yet the good news that God loves us can be difficult for us to accept.

On the most personal level it can be hard for some people to believe they are loveable. Life has told us otherwise. Critical or abusive parents told you, you were a disappointment, not worthy of love. A teacher diminished you with a word or a mark. A cold and neglectful life partner told you, in words or actions, that they had “better things” to do with their time then invest it in you. Children may be hostile and unforgiving, constantly rubbing your face in your shortcomings as a parent. Your boss may overlook you. A salesperson may be caustic. Someone in Church may criticize or correct you, avoid you or simply roll their eyes and sigh. Little do they realize they’re dredging up life-long feelings of inadequacy. Even the voices in our own heads may tell us, “You’re not good enough; you’re not worth loving.” It may be hard to believe, but God says you are. Once, when my daughter was a baby, I was feeling this way. Sitting in an empty room, praying, I became aware of God’s presence. Within my heart God whispered, “Sabrina, you know how you love Sarah? (with unbounded passion, as mother’s love their babies). Well, that’s how I love you.” My response? I argued. I told God how unlovable I was; how it was impossible for him to love me. Then I realized I was arguing with the Almighty God and if one of us was wrong, it was probably not God. If God says he loves me, then worthy or not, I am loveable. And so are you. God loves you.

Sometimes we’re resistant because the freedom with which God lavishes his love upon us makes us uncomfortable. We believe love must be earned. And therefore, we determine God’s love for us. Yet, God’s love isn’t something we control with our behaviour, our efforts or even our desire. Gods love leaves us without control or options. God loves us whether we want to be loved or not. And God gives his only Son to die for us, whether we want to be saved or not. God gives Jesus without asking us – without our permission or consent. This presumptuous behaviour is repeated with every infant Baptism. We bring our babies to the baptismal font before they are aware or can offer their consent. We immerse them in God’s love. They become part of God’s family. Some argue it’s wrong not to wait until children are “of age” and can decide for themselves. But that’s the quality of God’s love: God just goes ahead and adopts us, makes us His own, and pledges to be with us and for us, forever. All this whether or not we’re ready, interested, or eager to receive it. All this whether we deserve it, have earned it or even appreciate it. Like it or not, God loves us and has acted on our behalf.

Sometimes we’re angered by God’s all-encompassing love. How could God possibly love the world? Hasn’t he seen it? It’s okay if God loves the people we love or those we deem lovable, but how dare he love the others? Why on earth would God love the Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Bin Laden’s, Assad’s and Pol Pot’s of the world? How can God love the kid who guns down some mother’s child? And are you telling me that God loves gay people, fat people, lazy people, alcoholics and psychopaths? How can God love as freely, recklessly and thoughtlessly as that? It’s irresponsible. Perhaps a committee with better judgement could tell God whom he can and cannot love. I once buried a woman about whom the family could not say one good thing. She was mean, selfish and horrible. They couldn’t name one redeeming quality. How could God love a woman like that? Why would God sacrifice his Son to save someone so unworthy of redemption? Rev. Donovan Drake tells the story of his then 4-year-old brother Mark who was outside, frantically shouting at a friend to stop what he was doing. His mom looked out and saw the neighbor boy stomping on the ground with Mark pushing him. “What are you doing? They’re only ants,” shouted the neighbor boy. “They’ve got a right to live too!” was Mark’s comeback. The boy left. Mark got down on his knees and carefully picked up every little crushed speck of wounded ant and said, “Oh little ants don’t worry! My mommy will take care of you!” Drake asks, “Who decides what is right, pure, redeeming? My brother saw something worth redeeming in a handful of broken ants. He knew that the love of his mom was so powerful it could gather up all the hurt in this world and heal it. How much more powerful is the love of God?” I recall the words of God to Jonah who was infuriated that God would save the sinful, pagan Ninevites, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow… and should I not be concerned about Nineveh…?” (Jonah 4: 10 & 11). God looks on the people he created, and he cannot help but love us; he looks at the sinful, evil atrocities we do which hurt and destroy and he is heartbroken. He doesn’t dismiss it, turn a blind eye or excuse it. Because God so loves the world, he came in the person of Jesus who gave himself to redeem it all. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17). The love of God is so powerful it gathers up all the hate and hurt in this world and heals it. By faith in Christ, everyone can be part of that healing. No one needs to perish. Everyone is offered the chance for eternal life.

Finally, while we may want to receive, experience and even believe in a God who loves us and dies for us, it is hard not to question if he really does. The season of Lent is powerful, not only because it gives us time to reflect on our need for redemption and Christ’s saving grace, but also because it is a dark, sparse and barren time that mimics all the dark, sparse and barren times of our lives when God’s love is not so easy to see. Lent takes us back into the wilderness times of our lives when life was at it’s worst and God could not be found. The times when we helplessly witnessed the suffering of our dying spouse, when we stood beside the grave of our beloved child, when our partner asked for a divorce, when the police knock on our door to tells us our best friend has been murdered, when the doctor tells us we have cancer, when we wake up alone at night, when we lose our job for no reason, when a loved one is suffering from a mental illness, when the law says we have to sent our child to an estranged and irresponsible parent every other weekend. I could go on and on and on. The Lenten times of our lives are painful and sad. It’s impossible not to ask where this God of love is hiding; not to wonder whether God is in the world, with and for me, at all; if God really loves us and if he loves us, why doesn’t he do something? A medieval monk announced he would be preaching the following Sunday evening on “The Love of God.” As the shadows fell and the light ceased to come in through the cathedral windows, the congregation gathered. In the darkness of the altar, the monk lit a candle and carried it to the crucifix. First, he illumined the crown of thorns, next, the two wounded hands, then the marks of the spear wound, then the pierced feet. In the hush that fell, he blew out the candle. The room was completely shrouded in darkness, the people were alone. The monk left the room in silence. There was nothing else to say. Even in that darkness, the crucified Christ was still there, unseen yet present. Whether seen or unseen, God loves us.

However we label ourselves, whatever we deserve or don’t deserve, however we act or think, whomever we would reject, salvation is always God’s choice and God’s doing. And so, like a baby safe in the arms of the mother who adores her, we can rest in peace and assurance because we live, love, play, work, sin, repent and die in the arms of God who loves the world so much, he gave his only Son so that no one needs to be destroyed. By believing in him, anyone and everyone can have abundant and everlasting life. God’s love is amazing and endless. It is our only hope and it is beautiful – like a rose.